Introduction: A Celebration of Life

Haida artist Bill Reid once told me that a century ago our ancestors used to sell argillite stone carvings to Europeans and others for 25 cents an inch. These carvings are miniature totem poles our artists elaborately craft, hone and polish in a black stone that exists only near my village of Skidegate, in Haida Gwaii, the Islands of the People off Canada’s northwest coast. Euro-Canadians used to call our homeland the Queen Charlotte Islands, but now many have come to honour our traditional name.

Argillite is a form of catlinite which in its red form, not surprisingly, is the pipestone from which other First Peoples make the most sacred of their prayer pipes.

Haida people have made argillite pipes, too, but not all focused on sacred themes. Still, 25 cents an inch was very inexpensive, even then. Times have changed. Now, our artists’ work, both past and present, is far more costly. The very best stone art is priceless, Bill told me, both to the world, and even more, to us.

The argillite poles often feature our family crests, including eagles, ravens, killer whales, bears, wolves, and others. The artists, including my great-grandfather by marriage, Skung Gwaii (Ninstints) chief Tom Price, also carved human figures and other elaborate designs on argillite dishes, bowls, game boards and other items. These elaborate carvings of animals, people and everything we hold dear are among the ways we celebrate life.

The same crests appear on dance regalia that we use at potlatches and when we visit non-Northwest powwows. The potlatches are a centre of our lives that celebrate our communities. A few are family affairs, but nearly all potlatches welcome all peoples. Our families install chiefs, hand down traditional names and adopt worthy people. Potlatches share our foods, our stories, our songs and our dances.

But that does not mean our Haida people would always dance just for anyone. Following this essay are two poems I have written. One tells about a time a group wouldn’t dance. The poem explains why they made this decision, but also, in the spirit of the potlatch, the poem invites all people, all nations and all communities to come and celebrate with us.

Our hope and prayer is that this website, Native Dance, will provide a similar gateway. It is a journey into our souls in which all First Peoples can explore common ground with each other, and with all people who began life on Pangea, a scientific term that describes the long-ago time when the continents of this planet were joined in one Turtle Island.

Perhaps the muskrats, eagles, ravens and the other natural beings in our stories, songs and dances will help bring the earth to the surface once more; to make our planet whole again.

The Turtle Island stories come from the eastern First Peoples who host powwows and their own traditional dances.  Powwows are not the same as potlatches, but the events share much in common.  They celebrate life, family pride, arts, dance, foods and fellowship with all peoples.

Every cultural celebration, whether story, song, potlatch, traditional dance and powwow is, in our own Native way, poetry. Each is like a symphony that speaks of Truth, far more than just the movements and words.

Such truths are a high mountain lake. The songs, dances and poems mirror the water’s surface. But the music and the movement, our inner spirit and soul, dwells beneath the outer performances. They transfuse those unfathomable realities that sometimes even storytellers, dancers and poets do not fully comprehend.

To dive deeply into song, dance and language is to experience Truth.

My poem, “Potlatch”, speaks of a hard time when our enemy was the colonial spirit that allowed a particular gender of a particular people to claim to be “Founding Fathers” despite the fact that First Peoples’ women, elders, men and children have been here, solidly founded, since the beginning of time.

Song, dance and language unify. Knowing this, the colonizer once tried to take away our music and our Native movements, claiming that the European way was superior. Yet it would be a mistake for us to be reactionary, to denigrate these other cultures. They, too, have a rich heritage. They, as well, truly need to celebrate their communities.

A Northwestern potlatch, the central and eastern American powwows and giveways, and the sacred and sometimes still private dances speak volumes. Our Native spirit itself imbues the art and the dance.  This legacy, the communal web, is the music of an ancient story. It is the movement, the sweep of an eagle dancer, the language of spirit.

Stories, songs, dances, languages and culture are inseparable. But the fact that almost all of us share English now, too, can ultimately be a blessing rather than a curse, despite the harsh history of how this language came to us. To speak English and other tongues in addition to our indigenous languages is to ascend the higher mountaintop: to see the world from the consciousnesses of more than one culture. This is good, but only if we keep and strengthen our own languages and cultures.

The blessing to us, as First Peoples powerfully alive, is that we can communicate from whatever height of mind and depth of heart we choose, in more than one culture’s ability to hear. We can articulate our Native spirit eloquently, even – when we choose to do so in the very language of the colonizers.

Dance and language are a strand that weave the fragments into the all. We are the West Coast people, the Haida, the Kwak’wala’ speakers, the Salish and many others. We are the Plains and Woodlands peoples, the Mohawk, Cree, Algonquin and others. We are the Metis. We are the Mi’kmaq. We are the Inuit. We are 53 separate language groups in many hundreds of Canadian communities. Our children have survived the time when others who were unenlightened sought to assimilate us. Yes, we value our own songs, our dances and our languages. By whatever means we communicate, our spirits must be strong.

The time has come that all Indigenous people must celebrate our differences, but see ourselves as one. Sadly, the language of the colonizer has become the only tongue many of us know. But that does not stop us from being Native. Otherwise, our children not gifted with hearing and voice would be cut off. On the contrary, a Native child, though mute, is still completely Indigenous.

At the same time, a dishonourable person, no matter what his language, is dishonourable still.  Likewise, honourable women and men are honourable no matter what the language.

To prosper, therefore, we must rise above the rhetoric; higher than any words.  We must appreciate and stand by who we are.  Then, in that spirit, we must keep, strengthen and renew our stories, songs, dances.  We must empower our languages with our own enlightened souls, which is what makes those languages alive.  We must breathe deeply, sensing that we are related to the sea, to the mountains, to the forests, to one another and to peoples on all continents of the one Earth, Turtle Island, and Her children, the former Pangea.

We, the peoples of the Earth, are the all.

Our powwows, giveaways, traditional celebrations and potlatches can teach all Earth’s people to respect one another. The dances and the songs that rise from the cry of the eagle, the manifold voices of the raven and the subtle whispers that pass lightly between the trees, grace our indigenous celebrations of life.

All life communicates soul; the essence of life itself is a dance. Across the generations, our ancestors and all living beings have demonstrated the power to survive in the face of overwhelming odds. We who are alive today are testimony to the power of the dance. It behooves us, then, to commit our hearts unselfishly to our Native ways.  When our heritage and our hearts are strong, our children are strong.  When our children are strong, we are strong. When all Earth’s children are strong, the planet will be strong.

For our children’s sake we must continue to dance, for each movement is a silken strand in the larger web of the all: the pattern of the Whole.

When a Native dance dies, part of us – part of all humanity – further crumbles into fragments. So, together, as the all, we must continue to interweave the dances that catch our own visions; our own dreams; our own realities; in our own ways.

My poem, “Potlatch”, is not really mine. It came to me. Potlatch was a real experience. I actually did experience one Haida dance group that refused to perform for the colonizer’s gain, yet freely danced for those same people at our open celebrations, the potlatches.

I honour all our First Peoples.  Our ability to shape music, dance and language creatively is our ability culturally to dwell where we choose. In our reintegration with the all, we breathe life into stories, our songs and our dances. In this way, we gain our Elders’ wisdom to breathe that same life into the Truths that unify all people.

Tribal Nations Canada Topographical Map

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We are the children of our grandparents, of our Nunni and our Chinni. Our thousands of years upon this land are enough to sustain us and to help forge a new way of being, one that is not really new, but new to us. We must keep the torch burning, all people of all colours, because we are the ancestors of the children of tomorrow.

So come all Canadians, all Americans, North and South; all Europeans, all Asians, and all others.  Come enjoy this Native Dance Website. Come, celebrate life with us.

How’a sta!

Dr. John Medicine Horse Kelly


Why can’t you understand, Why we wouldn’t dance for you?
Why you went home
It’s our soul;
That is not for sale.
It’s Argillite poles
For which, years ago,
You paid
Twenty-five cents an inch,
Or it’s a dance that celebrates
The relationship
Between our children
And our past.
It’s All living things,
And it’s not for sale
At twenty-five cents An inch,
And it’s not for sale
At twenty-five cents A step. But, come,
Come If you’ll Celebrate
Life with us!
You’ll never go home


(John Medicine Horse Kelly)

© 2024 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
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